In The Absence Of The Social

I am of the belief that much of what ails this republic and its citizenry is connected in some fashion to the ongoing erosion of community life. The less we are connected to one another and the less we experience interpersonal closeness, the more we grow discontented, alienated, and despondent, seeking to fill or numb the void with material consumption, an overemphasized work life, or other distractions and addictions. Yesterday, news of a recent study documenting a decrease in the core social network of many Americans was released, as reported here by Reuters:

Americans’ circle of close friends shrinking

Americans are more socially isolated than they were 20 years ago, separated by work, commuting and the single life, researchers reported on Friday.

Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had “zero” close friends with whom to discuss personal matters. More than 50 percent named two or fewer confidants, most often immediate family members, the researchers said.

“This is a big social change, and it indicates something that’s not good for our society,” said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author on the study to be published in the American Sociological Review. Smith-Lovin’s group used data from a national survey of 1,500 American adults that has been ongoing since 1972.

She said it indicated people had a surprising drop in the number of close friends since 1985. At that time, Americans most commonly said they had three close friends whom they had known for a long time, saw often, and with whom they shared a number of interests. They were almost as likely to name four or five friends, and the relationships often sprang from their neighborhoods or communities.

Ties to a close network of friends create a social safety net that is good for society, and for the individual. Research has linked social support and civic participation to a longer life, Smith-Lovin said. more…

I am reminded of a wonderful parable that the author and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, offers in his book, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. I think that it pretty much says it all:

There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,� said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room in the middle of which was a very big round table. The people sitting at it were famished and desperate. In the middle of the table, there was an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. The people around the table were holding spoons with very long handles. Each person found that it was just possible to reach the pot to take a spoonful of the stew, but because the handle of the spoon was longer than anyone’s arm, no one could get the food into his mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible. “Now I will show you Heaven,� said the Lord, and they went into another room, exactly the same as the first. There was the same big round table and the same enormous pot of stew. The people, as before, were equipped with the same long-handled spoons—but here they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. At first, the rabbi could not understand. “It is simple, but it requires a certain skill,� said the Lord. “You see, they have learned to feed each other.�

Online Folk Festival: Antidote for Bad Estate Tax Legislation

After reading the bad news that the estate tax (a compromise) passed the House, I decided it was time to get out my guitar and play some Dylan, Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega, and Indigo Girls for my ever-appreciative audience of three cats and a baby. Then I decided to go online looking for some sources of good folk music. I found The Online Folk Festival and listened to a duet by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, some Traveling Wilbury’s, Paul Simon, and more.

And now, about that estate tax. It looks as though the Republicans are succeeding in their plan to turn the United States into a Third World country. They are willing to decrease our revenue via this tax compromise by an estimated $750 billion dollars over the next 10 years. So when we look at our country 10 years from now and find that we have more slums, more homeless families, more uninsured people, less quality public education, less social advancement, and more gated communities for the ultra-wealthy, we’ll know who to thank.

By the way, both Kennedy and Langevin opposed this compromise.

Almonte: Cranston No Model for Pension Funding

The Auditor General, Ernest Almonte, has an opinion piece in today’s Projo that corrects Ed Achorn’s baseless praise for Cranston’s pension funding. Of particular note:

Ironically, Mr. Achorn mentions Cranston as a community that has seemingly “staved off — temporarily, anyway — ” a pension disaster. In fact, Cranston is quite representative of the problem throughout the state. One could fairly conclude that Cranston’s police and fire pension, administered by the city, is in crisis.

In 2005, Cranston’s unfunded liability grew by more than $5 million, to $220.5 million — even after I had insisted that the city make the required contribution for fiscal year 2004. Unfortunately, in fiscal year 2005 the city failed to make the required contribution; its payment was short by more than $2 million.

Cranston reported an operating surplus for fiscal year 2005 of $3.5 million. Reporting a $3.5 million “surplus” could be considered misleading. This surplus could have been applied to the pension debt. Cranston based its contribution on an unrealistic 8-percent rate of return; it actually earned less than 4 percent. I hardly think Cranston should be held up as an example for other municipalities to emulate.

So our outgoing Mayor, Senator-wanna-be, sent a letter with the tax bills bragging about how pension assets are “Nearly $40 million! Continually funded,” when in fact the city did not make the required contribution for 2005.

Furthermore, the financial firm responsible for investing our funds, UBS Financial, is only producing a 4% return. Currently, a 4% return has become standard on many savings accounts, with some banks like Capital One offering rates as high as 4.75%. So the city could end its contract with UBS (a contract, which, if I remember Peter T. Pastore’s words correctly at the meeting to seal this deal, is “at will” and can be terminated at any time) and put the money in a savings account and make the same return or more without paying a financial firm one single dime. Or better yet, the city could invest in US savings bonds and make an average return closer to 5%, free of risk. Particularly now, as the stock market is looking shaky, US savings bonds or a savings account might be a prudent move.

The Gap Featuring Tops & Bottoms

Wage Gap Cartoon by Signe

In the event that you were somehow under the misapprehension that The Gap was merely a large retailer specializing in trendy clothing produced in sweatshops, allow me to enlighten you on the gap of which I truly speak: The Wage Gap. Yesterday, the Center for Economic and Policy Research issued a press release in response to a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage:

The federal minimum wage is at its lowest point in 50 years. Congress has not raised the minimum wage in a decade. As of December 2006, this will be the longest time Congress has ever gone without raising the minimum wage.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, increasing the federal minimum wage to $7.25 per hour over the next 26 months — as proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy in an amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization bill — would raise the annual earnings of the average full-time, full-year, minimum-wage worker by $1,520.

Raising the minimum wage is only the first step in helping families to make ends meet. First, it is important to recognize that a substantial share of minimum wage workers are adults making significant contributions to the total family income. In the early 2000s, fewer than one-in-five minimum wage workers was under the age of 20 and half were between ages 25 and 54. In 2002, minimum wage workers earned an average of 68 percent of their total family income. [full text and graph]

Of course, as noted by the Center for Policy Alternatives, “[a]n individual who works full-time at the current minimum wage earns about $10,700 a year—$5,900 below the 2006 poverty line for a family of three, and $9,300 below the poverty line for a family of four.� Thus, even with an increase to $7.25/hour, the minimum wage will still fail to be a living wage for a great many families. Now, contrast this data with what’s happening on the other end of the economic spectrum, as reported this past April by Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe:

Income Gap Mentality

AS TREASURY SECRETARY John Snow meandered through his thoughts about the pay gap between CEOs and workers, it brought back memories of 1992 when the first President Bush toured a mock-up of a grocery checkout counter, watched a carton of milk, a lightbulb, and some candy ring up via a scanner and said about the technology, ”This is for checking out?”

The scanner came to mind because, as the average American worker watches corporate America slash pensions and healthcare, as the average American has seen real wages decline in the last quarter century, and as the average American family has to work harder to maintain the standard of living it inherited, Snow talked about this as if it were not much of a problem.

He told Globe reporters and editors yesterday that the pay gap was symbolic of the nation’s ”aspirational” compensation system, a star system in which, for example, top baseball players are paid $30 million. But he thinks that the US economy shows there is still plenty of trickle-down money to go around, making our country one that still ”shares the spoils of the game….”

All we are left with is our aspirations in a game where the average share of the American dream is being spoiled. The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, the two liberal think tanks that annually chart the gap between CEOs and workers, currently list the gap at 431-to-1, or $11.8 million to $27,460. That compares with a gap of 107-to-1 in 1990. If salaries of the average worker had kept up with that of a CEO, he or she would be making $110,136. Had the minimum wage risen at the same pace as CEO compensation, it would stand today at $23.01. The federal minimum wage of $5.15 has not risen since 1997.

In 1980, the gap was only 42-to-1. Where the spoils go are quite clear. According to 2005 federal data from the Congressional Budget Office, the share of America’s income that went to the highest 20 percent of households increased from 45.5 percent in 1979 to 52.2 percent in 2003. The remaining 80 percent of American households all saw their share of the nation’s income drop.

The higher you go in that top 20 percent, the more the rise in their share of the income. The top 1 percent of Americans saw their share of America’s income zoom from 9.3 percent in the last quarter century to 14.3 percent. The top 10 percent saw their share go from 30.5 percent to 37.2 percent.

How Snow thinks that 10 percent of Americans holding 37 percent of the income represents a sharing of the spoils is checkout-counter economics. His claim falls especially short considering that 46 of the nation’s 275 largest companies, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, the United for a Fair Economy, and another liberal think-tank, Citizens for Tax Justice, paid no federal income tax in 2003. Eighty-two of the largest 275 companies paid no federal income tax at some point during 2001-2003 as the current President Bush cut taxes for the wealthy. [full text]

In case you were curious, Gap, Inc.—which is currently ranked 139th among the Fortune 500 companies—did apparently pay federal income taxes during the aforementioned time period. Don’t you feel better now? So what if this country would prefer to wage war rather than war about wages and inequality. So what if some 37 million Americans and nearly 18 percent of all children in this country are living in poverty. So what if a sizable number (1/3 to 1/2) of those seeking emergency food assistance are among the working poor. Let them eat cake.

MSM Lovefest over Blogs May Be Ending Soon

And at the Projo, I’m not sure the lovefest ever really got started. References to blogs are few and far between in the Projo, so imagine my surprise when I found today’s column by Froma Harrop, in which she warns Ned Lamont of the great evils that will befall him should he drink too heavily from the martini fountain of the liberal blogosphere.

Blogs are doing a great many things to affect modern communication. They offer an unprecedented diversity of voices for the avid reader. They also offer an amazing diversity of emphasis, with their writers often blending their professional and personal life into their own unique brand of citizen journalism. I would also argue that blogs are changing our language, that new words are being introduced at a faster rate, and that *punctuation in writing* is being taken in all sorts of new directions. Finally, blogs are about passion. Most of us are not doing it because it’s our job and if we don’t we won’t get paid. We’re doing it because we honest-to-beeswax care.

In politics, Blogger Cenk Uygar argues that blogs are a leading indicator of where the country is likely heading. The problem as indicators go is that blogs tend to be way ahead of the trend, so that most people think they sound kind of “out there” when they are often telling people something that they will eventually come to believe. From Cenk Uygar:

Currently, the political blogs are seen as agitators and outsiders. That’s true now. But that doesn’t mean it will stay true through all of time. In fact, not only do blogs have a bright future, but they are an indication of what the future might hold for the whole political system.

People who read blogs are among the most politically educated people in the country. They care to know what’s happening in current events and politics. So, they knew there was no link between Al Qaeda and Iraq well before the general population. Not because they were privy to some secret information, but because they cared to find out right away.

The facts always catch up to the American people. But sometimes it takes awhile. Bush didn’t earn his 30% approval rating over the last year and a half, he did that in the last five and a half years. It just took awhile for the general population to catch up to what the bloggers and blog readers already knew about.

Because blogs are relatively small and new to the scene, they are the classic Cassandras of their time — an army of independent thinkers who are often perceptive enough to portend the future, with the tragic fate of not being listened to or believed. I distinctly remember telling a friend, a school teacher, about how we were publishing an article on fuel cells in the second issue of Kmareka back in July 2002. I told her that the country would be moving toward alternative fuels. She laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right?” I wasn’t. And while fuel cells for cars are not on the market yet, look for ethanol to be coming to a gas station near you very soon.

While some of the lefty blogs have shrill, angry moments (a side effect of being a Cassandra), another significant thing that blogs do is reject the mainstream media as the best source for accurate information about politics. This means politicians of every stripe get scrutinized. Even the shrillest lefty blogs show little loyalty to the Democrats as a whole, and are often willing to criticize sleazy Dems and Dems who have abandoned positions consistent with the basic principles of the party.

So that Froma Harrop is suggesting that blogs are a dangerous medium with which to associate yourself as a political candidate is the kind of thinking that many old school consultants to Democratic party are likely telling candidates like Sheldon Whitehouse and Ned Lamont. The natural tendency of people to be wary of change corroborates their argument. But the larger story is that blogs are here and they’re here to stay. Why? Because they serve a marketable function that the mainstream corporate media does not.

Harrop’s piece suggests that bloggers have a lot of weight to throw around in the world of politics, and this may not be a good thing for Dems. John Dickerson at Slate begs to differ, suggesting that blogs should not believe the hype that the mainstream media has put them through for the past few years. From John Dickerson at Slate:

It’s not in bloggers’ short-term interest to knock down the story of their own throw-weight, but it may be to their long-term benefit. Not only do bloggers lose standing as critics if they stop being critical, but insufficient wariness will lead to an inevitable messy breakup. Media infatuations never last. When expectations get too high, the press reverses itself, because one of the laws of journalism is that the story has to change. In this case, political reporters will turn on bloggers if the promised revolution doesn’t materialize in the form of a Democratic sweep in the midterms. We are probably just under five months away from a wave of coverage positing that bloggers weren’t that powerful after all. After we build up the Markos regime, we will help to tear it down.

Aw, Rats!

It was only a matter of time before scientists tackled the problem of why gutter rats like Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh (to name just a few) thrive while more clean-living folks seem to do less well. AP science writer Seth Borenstein reports on a pair of recent studies suggesting that cleanliness may be next to godliness but not necessarily healthiness:

Rat Study Shows Dirty Better Than Clean

Gritty rats and mice living in sewers and farms seem to have healthier immune systems than their squeaky clean cousins that frolic in cushy antiseptic labs, two studies indicate. The lesson for humans: Clean living may make us sick.

The studies give more weight to a 17-year-old theory that the sanitized Western world may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, figures that people’s immune systems aren’t being challenged by disease and dirt early in life, so the body’s natural defenses overreact to small irritants such as pollen.

The new studies, one of which was published Friday in the peer reviewed Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, found significant differences in the immune systems between euthanized wild and lab rodents.

When the immune cells in the wild rats are stimulated by researchers, “they just don’t do anything they sit there; if you give them same stimulus to the lab rats, they go crazy,” said study co-author Dr. William Parker, a Duke University professor of experimental surgery. He compared lab rodents to more than 50 wild rats and mice captured and killed in cities and farms.

Also, the wild mice and rats had as much as four times higher levels of immunoglobulins, yet weren’t sick, showing an immune system tuned to fight crucial germs, but not minor irritants, Parker said. He said what happened in the lab rats is what likely occurs in humans: their immune systems have got it so cushy they overreact to the smallest of problems. more…

Who’d’ve thunk it? I’m living in the immunological equivalent of a gated community. So how come the neighborhood’s in such disrepair and the place is looking more and more like a police state?